It’s not a game

It isn’t a game.

I do not write for fun. I write to sell books. Now if I was writing to test my skill, to show off to my peers, to prove a point… I might choose to ‘play ‘on the highest difficulty level. That’d be a challenge. But as I write to sell, I want it on the lowest difficulty setting possible.

The internet, and particularly Amazon’s Self-Publishing facility (all the rest were happy to co-operate with Traditional Publishing, where a pseudonym… wasn’t permitted. You dragged your old sales figures and past with you.) means you, Joe or Jane or Vla’hurrrg Author, are free to appear to be anyone to the buyer. Amazon doesn’t care if your real name is Nostrl Glooba, you are green, come from Alpha Centauri and need to be in a wheelchair, worship the twin demons ping and pong, and are a trasgender poly-amorous lesbian… and you want call yourself John Smith, a whitefeller from Ohio, 100% mobile, Catholic, (cis)male, Hetero and married with kids – or vice versa. This is very different from traditional publishing, and the Arts establishment in general which really does care. Personally I find the former refreshing, and commendable. YMMV.

Now, according to John Scalzi the easiest level of life is being white male. Numerous other folk will tell you that this ‘privilege’ (bit puzzling this this. I always thought privilege was something I was given and could choose therefore to accept or refuse, and it could be taken away. That was enjoyable. ) makes life easier. I believe it does apply as a broad rule for life… in Chechnya. Of course, being able to speak Chechen, and being a Sunni Moslem are also essentials. Publishing there is not a large business. Comparatively, across humanity, being white and male comes a long way down on being other things in many, many places. This is, of course also the reality in niches within humanity, the professions and the seeming infinite micro-climates of life as we really experience it and live it. Being thought to be a white male is no advantage in Romance writing (because I know quite a few exist, but they hide the fact), but would be in writing Chechen religious tracts. It’s all very well saying it helps with avoiding arrest in Chicago, or getting help from a mechanic in Nebraska, but I’m a writer of internet space . That’s my niche.

Here we can choose. After all, as no one ever has to know Nostrl Glooba is really John Smith (or vice versa) – or if you feel they’re all bigots who discriminate against a common Alpha Centauran/US name… you can be a success, and then, a la Tiptree, show them how wrong they were. And speaking personally, again, I really do not care what my readers think I am. I care about them liking the story and being prepared to pay for it, and the next one. I want it as easy as possible, and if faking being something I’m not will work to overcome reader prejudice to get them to at least try it, I’d consider it.

So – I am a writer of sf and fantasy: what IS this lowest difficulty setting in my niche?

Well, let’s run the numbers and see:

Earlier this year I answered a post on the numbers of new releases from publishers divided by sex, and looking at ‘newness’ Back then the traditional publishers were skewed marginally female, and if you took out the long established authors and just did the 3 book or less than 10 years in publishing – very skewed to female. It was a long process as I had to check every author, and obviously specific numbers change month by month, and I’m not prepared to invest the time again so soon. But let’s look at one large publisher as a sample. I picked on Tor (what? I never called it a scab. You’re hearing things, Beside my mother told me not pick at them, but to leave them to heal). I discounted graphic novels or things that obviously weren’t novels, or weren’t sf (stock car racing). I counted Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory out as one of each. Overall I ended with a 57 % male : 43 %female ratio. Simply taking those I knew, I came up with about 5% ‘PoC’ so the real figure may be higher. As it happens I knew the sexual orientation of some authors (it’s not a secret) and based on that the figure is around 4% non-Hetero. I could be getting that wrong too. Taking ‘New’ authors (names that haven’t been around forever – or if they have I failed to recognize them – sorry this time I didn’t bother to look up every one, just the ones where gender could by name or initial be confused. Consider it a reasonable guesstimate) Female 69% female to 31% male.

So: given those more or less hold up from last time, one can say there was a historical advantage in traditional print – at least in longevity in print of male authors. If you limit the oldies to pale male it’s around 50:50. There appears to be difference between the predicted ‘PoC’ number based on demographics, and merely looking at Hispanic seeming names, I’d guess pretending to be one of these is a poor strategy – but of course they won’t let you pretend and demand to know who you are, although they will let you fool readers. As we don’t have an official number for homosexual people it’s pretty hard to say if they’re over or under accepted by traditional publishers. I’ve seen the 4% stat quoted but I don’t know. But overall, if you wanted to enter traditional publishing now, it looks like being female has some advantage. That could be an artifact from the number of entrants.

Then we look at the awards. Well, we’ve just had the Nebula awards, which were 100% female won. I think 25% would qualify as PoC (but with 4 winners, less than 25% = 0). Not sure of the orientation of all of the participants, but 3 of 4 mention husbands in the easy-to-access material. So if you want to be a Nebula winner, that was, this year, obviously not the easy game on male and white. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your point of view… based on their effect on sales the Nebs are if anything, cash and reader negative, so we can therefore assume that yes, if you want readers, and money, either it doesn’t matter or yes, ‘male’ can still be considered the easy level. But let’s see what the actual sales say. Maybe I’m wrong and they’ll all be at the top of the sales boards.

Hmm. Using the Kindle top 100 sf & fantasy bestsellers as a filter: the answer is no. Now because I’m just an author being curious, not a fisheries scientist being paid to be thorough, this – as with the rest of my figures here are not a deep systematic statistical analysis. Those top 100 figures do change by the hour, and I only looked at the top 40. In the hour I did in –between 10AM and 11AM my time – the male: female ratio was… 57.5% male to 42.5 female. Not really statistically significant, about the same as Tor’s new releases. Taking that as ‘new’ writers (and I did actually search every one) That’s 51% male to 49% female – not substantively different to the actual proportions of men and women… and quite different to Tor’s female bias. As I say not conclusive, but certainly means that it is unnecessary to change my name to Davina to gain advantage. A purely visual assessment, and reading the bios… subjective, and quite possibly wrong – but also all the readers have to go on – all appeared to be white. And where a partner was mentioned (almost always) all heterosexual (and, it seems often married with children, and not all young). A sample of 40 bestsellers in that hour is not definitive, but a fair guess, being white, and heterosexual doesn’t hurt either.

So I guess John Scalzi is at least semi-right for once in this subset: as far as getting readers are concerned white male has a microscopic – probably not significant in a larger sample — edge on white female, despite the discrimination at the publisher and arts establishment level against them. It does say that readers probably don’t care, just as Amazon doesn’t, and traditional publishers and arts establishment do. It would need participation clues too, to see how issues like orientation and ethnicity affect the numbers. I think it’s probably quite complex, and may relate to the type of book being produced. If you’re say… Korean and write a book that will really appeal only to other Koreans it probably won’t be a bestseller, although it could do well for you. If you write a book that appeals to, and shows the interesting side of your culture, to other ethnicities, it could be a bestseller – there are plenty of examples of just that. But in general, your chances as straight white male of writing a book with character that can be identified with to a large section of the US English reading population are higher, and Alex Dally McFarlane will have to go on dreaming of all books suddenly not having binary gender as a norm.

Where this really got interesting for me, however, was something I did out of curiosity about comments made on Cedar Sanderson’s excellent post by Michael Perry – the fellow who rebrands public domain books and came and moaned about how mean Amazon is – comments on price. I split the top 40 by gender – and worked out the median and average prices.

Overall median price was $3.99 (and I divided GRR Martins 5 booker by 5). Average was $4.43 – median is better measure here, as the sample is small, and a few expensive books skew it badly

Female median price: $1.99 – eight books at 99 cent books, and one $1.99. (at 35% royalties) the rest at 70%

Male median price: $4.99 — one book at 99 cents, and two at $1.99 (at 35% royalties) the rest at 70%

Now as Amazon ranking work on total earnings (no one knows fully how they work, bar someone at Amazon, and God, and neither are telling me – but dollar sales value is part of it) we can work out that some of those female authors did outsell the male competitors ranked above them. They also took home much less money. I’ll leave you to reach any conclusion you like – because we just don’t know. We do know that the market will at bestseller level support noobs who charge $2.99 or more, of both genders. It is interesting. Also worthy of note was just what genres there were, and who wrote them. I noticed a complete lack of ‘hard sf’. Military-ish sf – by indies, male, and priced at more than $2.99 + was the nearest it came. The upper end was mostly gritty fantasy. Zombies Werewolves and vampires are still around. Time travel cropped up a couple of times – I thought it was deader than the moon, but time-travel + romance does seem to be doing Okay. Three of female $0.99… had naked male torso’s on them. Obviously a good market for that. I wonder if Davina could write it. The other thing that struck me is that you’re obviously not playing in this league if you attract less than 50 reviews. And as final point while there are some recognizable names – Brandon Sanderson, Diana Gabaldon, GRR Martin through recognized big houses, there were – right up there at the top of the list – several full 70% earning indies. And there were some big names selling for $0.99.

But I still don’t know what the easy setting is. Do you think I’d be better off as Nostrl Glooba from Alpha Centauri?


    1. yes, but it seems that the card only has value in traditional publishing or the arts establishment, and very little with book buyers. On the other hand it might make people laugh and notice, and being noticed is important.

      1. But of course, you can’t POSSIBLY make it to the general public without first satisfying the TradPub gatekeepers.

        Although it seems that if you DO satisfy them, you don’t make it past the General Public gate-keeping their wallets.

      2. Nostrl Glooba would have to be writing Space Operatic Comedy, don’t you think?

  1. The whole “lowest difficulty setting” analogy strikes me as an analogy of desperation. I have yet to see a concrete example of how my gender and ethnicity has given me, personally, an advantage over another person.

    1. I’d think that a lot of women have a “lowest difficulty setting” to be an author in that they are more likely to be free to *not* make enough money to support the family. Gives you a lot of freedom that many men don’t have.

      It may also explain the non-mercenary attitude (“artsy fartsy”) of many women writers and explain the ebook pricing disparity.

      “I do not write for fun.”

      Except that many women do write for fun. And that’s not the fault of men.

      1. Interesting take, Synova.

        It would certainly explain the divergence in attitudes and the relative importance of issues like not using a gender neutral ‘nym. The most virulent I can think of ‘activists’ all have support or well-paying day jobs.

        “It may also explain the non-mercenary attitude (“artsy fartsy”) of many women writers and explain the ebook pricing disparity.”

        Hmm. You know, I didn’t think of that – and even at 33 cents a copy the bestseller top 100 are making pretty good money. And there is nothing like good money to make anyone a bit more mercenary. I suspect they’re using cheap as an attractant. It would interesting to find out if they need to. Realistically, some of them, certainly not.

    2. Then there’s one other thing the people who play the privilege card fail to consider: Writing is not a “low difficulty setting” profession by any stretch of the imagination.

    3. Oh I’m pretty sure it was just another guilt card to play. I like to assess individuals on their individual merits, but that does away with the opportunity to exploit potential ‘guilt’.

  2. Is there an easy setting?

    Or just people who fail to realize the hard work that went on out of sight, and whine when they aren’t handed the same success on a platter?

    White male privilege? How about the ‘privilege’ of working hard in school, and learning something with solid job prospects? The ‘privilege’ of obeying the law? The ‘privilege’ of budgeting?

    Most of the whiners need to look inward to find the source of their lack of privilege. And outward only to see how it’s done right, no matter the skin tone or plumbing arrangements.

    1. Yeah, pretty sure it was my failure in school that led to my current job, not my white male privilege. Would have felt different during my victimhood days just after high school. Hopefully my attempts to fix that will have some effect.

      1. At least you’ve proved you CAN step past victimhood. It’s actually possible to go somewhere from there. From inside ‘I’m a Victim,’ no.

    2. Very true Pam. It’s easy to say something like “I’m not successful because I’m not privileged.” Not so easy to say: “My openings are weak”, “My characters are lifeless — and it’s not zombie fiction”, “My plots don’t seem to go anywhere”, or “Too much passive voice is used in my writing – D’OH!!!”

      1. Ok -“My characters are lifeless — and it’s not zombie fiction” wins the comments for today. Maybe even for this month, if not year. Spew warning please! 🙂

    3. Too right. And there are always people who have it tough, even with the right skin tone and plumbing. And ones who the PC says should have it tough who actually have better row to hoe. Judgment JUST on that criteria is dumb.

  3. Of course it would be fairly easy to test your conclusions; start submitting manuscripts with a female name and see how it goes. The only thing that would change about your writing would be the perceived gender. See how your stuff sells when you’re submitting as Karen or Danielle. Or if you’re feeling really daring use a female name favored by a different ethnicity. Rosita. LaToya. Kumiko.

    I’d be curious to know how that works out.

    1. Cat, as a reader, there’s one problem with your idea.

      Readers hesitate to try any New Author they encounter.

      It doesn’t really matter to readers if the new author has a male name or a female name.

      What matters to readers is “will this book be a good read?”

      I’ve passed on new male authors as well as new female authors.

      Reading the “blurbs” and reviews (when there are blurbs/reviews) are more a factor of “should I try this” than the name of the author (male or female, foreign name or non-foreign name).

      As others have said, there’s no easy setting especially for new authors.

      1. That’s probably a common way of looking at things by people here, Paul, but a lot of people DO look at names and make decisions based on perceived gender. For myself, I don’t even pay attention to the author’s name after I’ve decided I don’t know them, but that’s not the way everybody works.

        1. That may another interesting study. IE what “clues” do people use to decide to check out a new author. Of course, the “clues” may vary depending on the genre. For example, I’ve “heard” that a female name is seen as more necessary for romance books.

          1. And from my understanding it has to be a properly styled female name, or more often than not, female pseudonym — like a feminine version of “Dash Riprock.” Maybe something like “Caprice S. Hart” or “Glitterine Hugh-Haugh.”

    2. The trouble, Cat, is that to do it properly, I’d need to write 2 novels – similar in content with similar covers, flip a coin to decide which got a male psuedonym -which would have to very similar (Joe Smith and Jane Smith, rather than Django Boone and Jessica Proudfoot-Sykes) as I have some following. And even then, to reach a reliable conclusion (it’s not just chance) I’d have to get another 30 writers to do so. An unlikely ask. I do plan to do a nym Romance one day, just to prove I can

      1. I suppose one could publish a book with the same cover, same title, different pen names, and see if Alistair Witlow’s version outsold Tralalia Savanah’s version.

  4. Fascinating analysis, Dave – I’d love to see what someone like you could do with the real figures rather than having to use implied measures like the Amazon bestselling lists and the like. Alas, not likely to happen.

    There is no “easy” setting. Ever. What there is are people who make it LOOK easy. And people who think the surface is all there is.

    1. Look, all the major players (Amazon too) SHOULD if they had any sense at all, be running stat analyses with professionals doing and interpreting. With the publishers I suspect it’s not money, but the fact that they all know it would show their prejudices and methods to be cr*p.

      And, yes, that was the point of this post. There is no easy setting. There is just envy and a demand for entitlement.

  5. I’ve been toying with the idea of using a more masculine pen name for the two WWI and aftermath alt-history novels I’m kicking around, just to see what happens. That said, since they fit into the Cat universe, it may be too late. Although I will admit that, as a semi-inside joke, I’ve seriously thought about using A.T.C. Boykin as the name on my aviation stories. 😉

  6. I unfortunately have a Facebook page that I don’t post; but, others do. The males send out information on various political and business related type posts. Like, ‘I have a 38 Ford in my garage and I need a starter. Anyone have one to sell?’ But the females send out constant emotional comments, as much or more political stuff. But- the references to books and reading is probably fifty percent of their send out. They never make recommendations for particular books, Classics, eth. Just “I’ve got to have my book fix!” stuff, which tells me that they really don’t have a reading taste and trashy romance is why the used bookstores have their ten cent (romance) tables. However, before I retired I knew the women that worked in courthouses read fiction that dealt with their jobs. Like John Updike and other Law and order type books. Not speculative fiction.If that’s any help.

    1. I do find, when I am working the day job, a slight bias toward SF&F among my co-workers. BUT I work as a computer professional (developer / analyst / project manager).

    2. Being omnivorous or reading for a fix isn’t a function of not having taste. I had excellent taste back in the day. It was just that the compulsion to read and finish books was stronger than the wish to put them down if they were bad or not my favorite.

      Man, I miss being omnivorous. The pleasures of reading are definitely greater, and you get a lot more reading done.

  7. I’m not fond of the idea of using a pen name (yes, finish the book first, Julie) but would I do so if it actually made a difference to sales? Probably, why not? And better to start as you mean to go on, right? I’ve used Synova so long that it’s now *me*, and I get used to my names on MMORPGs enough that they don’t seem strange, so I could probably do it. Would it be worth trying to figure out a name that was gender neutral? If people start avoiding “girl” names because they expect “teh ax-to-grind” or else “teh romance” it might be worth it. (Except that there usually is romance… um…)

    1. I’m curious – what’s wrong with using a pen name? Not trying to start an argument, I just don’t see any particular problem with it.

      For myself, if I ever finish anything and publish it, I will definitely be using a pen name, because I’m very sensitive to the possibility of being mocked by some of my acquaintances. And I’m pretty sure I know some who would, at least with my primary work in progress.

      1. Oh, nothing important and nothing *wrong*. Just weirdness like, do you answer to this other name if you’re on a panel at a con? You sign your book with a name that’s not you? It’s the alternative persona part that seems weird. But maybe it just never happens. I mean, people I know who use pseudonyms don’t use them at conventions. Maybe the idea of staying in character is ridiculous. Was John Wayne also John Wayne in private?

        1. If I attended LibertyCon, I’d use my pen name. If I went to BuboniCon, I wouldn’t but I also would not try to sell my books at BuboniCon, because there are people there who might recognize the “real me.” The personalities are close enough that I’d probably have no difficulty staying in character.

      2. It’s all marketing. If you have a built in pool of probably purchasers, you’d definitely want to use your name. If you think your name doesn’t sound, well, exciting enough or a good fit for the genre, a pen name might be in order.

        I waffled, and, to be brutally frank, finally used my own name so I could wave a real book under my mother’s nose.

        But now, if I were to use a pen name, any advantage those twenty titles on confer would be gone, and my established fans wouldn’t realize I had a new book out, unless you openly advertise that it’s you. This can be useful for “branding.” I publish YA under Zoey Ivers, just so the buyers know what they are getting.

        So, if you want to use a pen name, I’d recommend using it right from the start.

        1. The closest I come is I use my full name. That’s pretty much the only place I use it. But it does have a certain rhythm to it that makes it easier to say.

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